A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, 1931

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by William Faulkner, 1931

In his Nobel Prize address of November 1950, William Faulkner declared his allegiance to the heroic view of life much as though we were still living in the age of Homer: "The poet's, the writer's, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." The story "A Rose for Emily," collected in These Thirteen, poses an important challenge to Faulkner's Nobel purpose: Can this story about a pathological necrophiliac murderess really lift its reader's heart?

At first reading the Gothic horror of the tale will likely rule out a heartlifting experience. But in the end this story can be seen as the quintessence of Faulkner's art; failure to grasp the heroic nature of Emily Grierson will probably portend an inability to understand Faulkner's oeuvre at large. What connects Faulkner's Nobel sentiments with his necrophiliac murderess is the existentialist concept that every life contains some possibility of genuine free choice, despite the psychological determinism that severely limits the area of free will in many cases. It is only within that area of freedom, however small, that the dignity and meaning of anyone's life can be predicated.

With his customary economy of style Faulkner indicates Emily's huge burden of psychological determinism in a visual image—"a tableau; Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip." By driving away her suitors so as to keep her housekeeping services for himself, Emily's father has ruined her chances for a normal life and thereby grossly deformed her personality. But crazed as she is, after her father dies Emily attains a tiny area of genuine free choice—her chance to find and hold Homer Barron as lover and husband—and it is solely within this area that Emily can be judged. Faulkner's overall design leads our judgment to work greatly in Emily's favor, highlighting the virtues of courage, honor, and endurance in her life story.

The narrative design of "A Rose for Emily" is typical of much Faulknerian fiction: we begin in time present, as it were, with the death of Emily; then we move far back into the past to examine several character-revealing episodes; and finally we return to time present, having gained deeper insight into the opening scene. The story's five sections are unified by the heroic theme announced at the outset of part II: "So she vanquished them, horse and foot." That last phrase, referring to a medieval army, indicates the dimensions of Emily's string of victories over the townspeople, having nothing more than bare willpower with which to repel their crude invasions. In part I she expels the tax board from her house despite the legal powers they embody regarding tax delinquents; in part II the townspeople are reduced to skulking about her place after midnight spreading saltpeter against the mysterious bad smell (a nice clue for the detective format); in part III she flouts the law concerning rat poison (another clue); in part IV the Baptist minister, epitomizing this society's moral authority, departs from her home a broken man; and in part V we discover her private victory over time, death, and spinsterhood.

This crucial last scene is nicely adumbrated in the way Emily had earlier handled the death of her father: "She met [the ladies] at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them her father was not dead. She told them that for three days." After finally giving in to the townspeople's version of reality—"and they buried her father quickly"—she infallibly learned never to do so again and so withdrew totally from their sphere of influence, not even allowing installation of a mail box. The next time they would have no chance to pronounce her love object dead, and so Homer could take the place she had reserved for him among the rose-colored objects and silver bridegroom's articles in the attic. It is very important to Faulkner's heroic view of character that, crazy as she is, Emily does not rely on mere fantasy to fulfill her need for the status of wife and lover. Instead she obtains a palpable human body to ensconce within an actual bridal chamber. That difference between wishing and willing—between fantasy and reality—is precisely the measure of heroic aptitude.

There is no denying that the image of Homer Barron's mummified body, with Emily's telltale hair next to its head on the pillow, violates conventional standards of morality, just as her courtship with a Yankee of low class ("a Northerner, a day laborer") violates the conventional code of a Southern lady. But suspension of conventional mores is an indispensable feature of Faulkner's heroic vision. It is only by occupying the inner consciousness of his madmen, scapegoats, and outlaws that we can have any hope of understanding the Faulkner protagonist, whose circumscribing contingencies will typically make conventional standards inapplicable. Emily is thus the prototype of many Faulknerian heroes: the idiots Benjy and Ike Snopes in The Sound and the Fury and The Hamlet; the abortionist doctor in The Wild Palms; the murderer-protagonist in Light in August; the "nigger dopefiend whore" in Requiem for a Nun. Ultimately Emily's unbreakable willpower, the basis of her total victory over the combined force of the townspeople, links together the necrophiliac's secret chamber and the great hall in Stockholm where a voice speaks nobly about the old verities of the heart.

—Victor Strandberg

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A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, 1931

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